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Usage Update (Part 2): Deplorable or Acceptable?
(Language Update, Volume 3, Number 4, 2006, page 18)
H. W. Fowler was made of sterner stuff than most. The eminent and opinionated usage authority resigned from a long-time teaching position after a dispute with his headmaster; lied about his age at 56 and enlisted as a private during World War I; followed a running and swimming regime throughout his life; and at 68, declined his publisher’s offer of a servant, attributing his continued physical vigour to having had "no servants to reduce me to a sedentary and all-literary existence."
Yet even the redoubtable Fowler admitted that those guarding the fortress of the English language are powerless against the invading forces of popular usage. "What grammarians say should be," he wrote in Modern English Usage, "has perhaps less influence on what shall be than even the more modest of them realize; usage evolves itself little disturbed by their likes and dislikes."
In this article, we’ll continue our look at changing usage and examine where some contentious words and expressions currently stand.
Those of us who like the certainty of "dos" and "don’ts" can take comfort in knowing that some usages are still plain wrong. Here’s a handful of downright errors.
- Incomplete as far as structures.
As far as story leads, office duties and deadlines, Sharon takes on more than anyone else at the high school newspaper.
This misuse sends the more grammar-minded of us into paroxysms of frustration. As far as must always introduce a clause, a group of words containing a subject and a verb. But where, oh where is the verb? Far and wide, people are carelessly leaving out the go or are concerned that should complete the as far as statement. No doubt this omission stems from some vague notion that as far as is a preposition and can be completed by a noun alone. Wrong.
- Centre around.
This week’s program will centre around the history of K-Tel, the hard-sell company that in the 1970s marketed everything from wonder slicers to disco compilations.
Imagine a circle, then picture its centre, a single point. Common sense tells us why the correct wording has to be centre on. Similar geometrically correct expressions are focus on, revolve around and circle around.
- Many -wise compounds.
Skills-wise Boris is perfect for the undertaker position, but personality-wise he may not fit in.
Some -wise compounds are sound choices. Clockwise and lengthwise, for instance, are perfectly fine. So are streetwise and worldly-wise, where the suffix roughly means "wise in the ways of." But steer clear of hasty concoctions like careerwise, gender-wise and moneywise, all non-standard shortcuts for concerning or with regard to a certain thing.
- Dilemma to mean problem or predicament.
Angela’s dilemma is that her credit card payments exceed her disposable income.
A dilemma is a choice between two unpleasant or difficult options, and most usage authorities recommend keeping it that way. The increasingly loose use of the word to mean a general problem or difficult situation has been captured in the latest Canadian Oxford Dictionary (2nd edition, 2004) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate (11th edition, 2003), but until other dictionaries follow suit and usage guides begin to relax, we’re better off sticking with the traditional meaning.
- Fulsome to mean full or abundant.
The committee’s fulsome study of the Young Offenders’ Act eventually led to sweeping changes to the legislation.
Traditionally, fulsome has meant overly abundant or offensively excessive. For careful English users, "fulsome praise" is overblown praise that verges on obsequiousness. But this negative connotation is nowadays lost on many, who use "fulsome praise" to mean generous or lavish praise. This shift has stirred up so much turmoil that Bryan Garner, in his Dictionary of Modern American Usage, has declared fulsome a "skunked term," a term that’s so unsettled it’s bound to raise someone’s hackles somewhere. For now, he suggests, the safest course is to avoid the word entirely.
- Beg the question to mean invite or raise a question.
His decision to leave Grunge Dungeon after five years and three platinum albums begs the question—was he ever truly happy as a rock guitarist?
Usage commentators are divided on whether we should confine this expression to its original meaning or release it to the masses, who use it in a different way. Properly speaking, begging the question means basing a conclusion on an assumption that itself needs proving. As an example of begging the question, Garner offers the statement "Life begins at conception, which is defined as the beginning of life." But most people think the expression means to raise an obvious question, as in the music sentence above. This new meaning will undoubtedly overtake the old, but while the battle is still on, we should keep to the traditional meaning, at least in formal writing.
- Alternate as a synonym for alternative.
I know you’re counting on a week of camping in the open air, but do you have an alternate plan in case the weather turns bad?
In major Canadian and American dictionaries, one definition of alternate (as an adjective) is alternative, in the sense of available as another option. The British Concise Oxford says the two are synonyms in North American English but not in British. The Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage recommends keeping the adjectives distinct in formal writing, but few modern authorities back that view. Canadian writers and editors tend to side with the dictionaries on this one.
- Hopefully as a sentence adverb.
Hopefully, we can buff out the scratch on Mom’s new convertible before she sees it and disowns us forever.
Who knows why, but the innocuous adverb hopefully attracted virulent criticism from the 1960s to the 1980s. Objectors insisted that the word could only mean "in a hopeful manner," as in "The starving man looked hopefully at the tray of sandwiches approaching him." But nearly everyone else used the word as a sentence adverb meaning "It is to be hoped," as in the convertible sentence above. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1996), in its level-headed overview of the debate, notes that many -ly adverbs have morphed into sentence adverbs. In fact, while commentators were busy skewering hopefully, other sentence adverbs slid in under the radar, among them frankly, fortunately and seriously. Today it’s only the crankiest pedant who insists on the original, narrow meaning of hopefully.
- Presently to mean now or currently.
She is presently employed at the Snake Eyes tattoo parlour.
Presently as a synonym for now also drew many barbs in the late twentieth century. Presently means soon, said the authorities, not now or at present. Yet the latter meaning—curiously, a revitalized fifteenth-century sense of the word—has rapidly overtaken the former, to the point where most modern commentators and nearly all dictionaries accept it without question.
In 2003 one David Armstrong, a former English teacher, took Coca-Cola to task for misusing everyday in an ad for Dasani water: "Treat yourself well. Everyday." Everyday, he pointed out, is an adjective that describes common or routine things, such as everyday concerns. Coca-Cola’s campaign should have used "Every day," meaning each day. A company spokesperson replied that Coca-Cola had decided on everyday as the more "impactful" form. Naturally, the entry of this unfortunate neologism into the exchange fanned a moderate parlour blaze into a full-on house fire.
As H. W. Fowler acknowledged long ago, there’s little we can do to keep our language in check. New words emerge, old words change, battles are declared, debates die down. All that we writers can do is read and assess—and occasionally cave.
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